Racial / Ethnic Exclusion

It’s been a while since I have written. As one reader aptly noted, the demands of family, parish, etc. keep getting in the way of my blogging lifestyle. Yet I want to continue thinking about this notion of exclusion and embrace (that is, how the church often excludes people from its embrace).

In my last major post, I suggested that the church often excludes persons on the basis of social class or economic status. Likewise, congregations still have not discerned what the embrace of other cultures means.

If you were to ask most churches, they would say that they are open to accepting persons of all backgrounds. “We are a welcoming family,” they would say. “We’re happy for anyone to join us.”

Yet, at least in my experience here in the southern U.S., in the next breath they would say something like, “. . . but those people wouldn’t feel comfortable here . . . ” or “. . . those people wouldn’t enjoy our type of worship.” The differentiation between “us” and “them” is large, for many good and valid reasons. Yet, the underlying message is often “We want to welcome folks . . . as long as we don’t have to change our way of doing things to make them feel comfortable.”

I remember a conversation in a church I used to attend. This church was a large, downtown church which prided itself on a fairly traditional liturgical style. One day, I was talking with some folks about the ethnic diversity in our church when the above scenario came into play. The members I was talking with honestly wanted to be open and welcoming. Yet, they recognized that their worship style (which they weren’t willing to change) probably hindered their ability to do so.

This raises an interesting point — the tension between inclusivity and particularity. One the one hand, the church is called to be inclusive, to welcome all into its midst. Yet, on the other hand, each congregation is a particular place with a particular call in a particular location. It is impossible to be all things to every person (especially in our consumeristic faith models in the U.S.), and their is a need for a congregation to develop their own unique identity based out of God’s call for that congregation. Thus a tension results.

This cuts all sorts of ways. Brian McLaren recently noticed that many African Americans feel that racially divided church is not a bad thing, since African Americans need a space that is uniquely theirs. This belief values particularity (the need for safe space in a cultural context that makes sense) over inclusivity. Again, I’m not saying that these churches would exclude anyone who came in the door, but it’s always with the understanding that these newcomers will conform to “our vision,” rather than us adapting the vision to meet the needs of the new comers.

This isn’t an easy issue to address. On the one hand, racism is wrong, and evil to be cast aside (and healed from) without question. Yet the balance between inclusion and particularity is a fine line which is often open to question. I remember coming through my ordination process for my deacon’s orders. One of the committees that interviewed me focused on a question on how I understood what it meant to be an inclusive church. On the committee was an African American woman, a conservative white male, a Vanderbilt trained female, and several others. When I replied honestly that I struggled with this tension between inclusivity and particularity, the white male started to question my commitment to inclusivity. “Wait a minute,” the African American woman said, “there is difficulty sorting this out.” I then spent the bulk of my time in my interview listening to these pastors argue among themselves about the proper balance (a good technique if you want to get through the ordination interviews with a minimum of effort).

I very much struggle with these issues in my current setting. Our church was founded in a rural setting well over a hundred years ago. For most of its history, it was a small, white clapboard church in the country, near the railroad tracks. Then, in the late 1970’s or early 1980’s, a new mall was built in the community. Suddenly, new developments sprang up out of nowhere, and apartment complexes began to sprout like dandelions in the spring. What was once a sleepy little country church found intself in the middle of a suburb, and the church struggled to keep its identity in the midst of all this change. Today, these neighborhoods are radically changing in the ethnic mix. Most folks are aware of the large amount of hispanic immigration (the business signs keep that before us). What most folks miss is the rapid growth of African American and Laotian families in the area. Just down the road a piece is the largest Kurdish community of anywhere outside of Iraq. Yet, our worship style and worship participation continues in the white, rural, mainstream Methodist tradition of past years.

It’s easy to suggest that we should radically re-tool to better meet the needs of our new neighbors, but what about the folks who have gone before who are still with us? They want to be inclusive, but in the midst of the change all around them the thought of changing their church to meet the needs of neighbors we barely know seems extreme.

–to be continued–

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